John Whelan Sterling was born on July 17, 1816, in Wyoming County, Pennsylvania. He graduated with honors from the College of New Jersey (later Princeton) in 1840, and in 1844 graduated from the theological seminary there and was ordained as a Presbyterian minister.
In 1846 Sterling moved to Wisconsin and accepted the position of professor of mathematics in Carroll College. In February 1849 Sterling opened the preparatory department for the new University of Wisconsin. When the university officially opened in August of that year, Sterling and Chancellor Lathrop were the only faculty.
From the resignation of Henry Barnard in January 1861 to the inauguration of Paul Chadbourne in 1867, Sterling served as chief executive of the university although his official title was Dean of Faculty and Vice Chancellor (starting in 1865).
Due to the Civil War and bad financial straits, the University’s fortunes were at a low during this period, and no one pushed to hire an actual chancellor until 1867. When Chadbourne became president, Sterling returned to teaching mathematics and other subjects and continued to do so until his sudden death in Madison on March 9, 1885. Because of his extensive involvement in its development, Sterling was fondly referred to as the “Father of the University.”